Can Digestive Enzyme Supplements Help You Digest Food Better?
Got a sensitive gut? If you feel bloated, gassy or the tingling start of heartburn after a meal, it could be that you’ve overeaten, or it could be indigestion.
Digestive enzyme supplements are sold as a cure for your tummy issues, but do they actually work? Let’s break down what these enzymes are and what they do. And, if you’re seriously considering a supplement, there’s sound advice on that, too!
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes help break food down into simpler forms so that your body can absorb and use them for energy, growth and repair. Food provides the body with energy and valuable nutrients, which are vital to our health, but you can’t tap into any of it without proper digestion. Cue: digestive enzymes!
You can find digestive enzymes throughout the digestive tract. These teeny, tiny enzymes are busy at work, from the moment you salivate over spaghetti, all the way until that meal is mush in your small intestines. Having enough enzymes is important for proper digestion. Says Alecia Wong, MPH, RD, CD and dietitian for Providence Medical Center, “The good news is we have an ample supply of these enzymes, and our body can produce more if we need it.”
What Do Digestive Enzymes Do?
The breakdown of food happens through a series of chemical reactions. Think of enzymes as little assistants that speed up chemical reactions. Digestive enzymes are just a special class of enzymes that make digestion faster and more efficient. There are three main classes of digestive enzymes. They each target one of the three macronutrients found in food:
- Amylase—breaks down carbs (e.g. fruit, veggies, starch) into simple sugars.
- Protease—breaks down proteins (e.g. eggs, meat, soy) into amino acids.
- Lipase—breaks down fats (e.g. oil, butter, avocado) into free fatty acids.
With carbohydrates, amylase doesn’t always do the trick. For example, you’ll need sucrase and lactase to digest table sugar and milk, respectively.
Who Should Take Digestive Enzymes?
Bloating, gassiness, heart burn and other digestive issues are downright uncomfortable. No wonder folks want a solution to the tune of $358M. That’s how big the global market for digestive enzymes was in 2016, and it’s projected to be one billion by 2025. All that money, but do these supplements work?
According to Wong, “Only people with a deficiency in digestive enzymes will benefit from taking a supplement. This includes those with certain digestive disorders like chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) or cystic fibrosis.” Unless you’ve been diagnosed with a digestive-enzyme-lowering condition, you don’t need a supplement.
Can Digestive Enzymes Help with IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder that affects 10-15% of people worldwide but whose precise cause is unknown. Irritable bowel syndrome can take an emotional toll —you may get diarrhea, constipation, cramps or gas at unpredictable times in life. But you won’t know why you’re experiencing these symptoms or how to make them go away.
Many digestive enzyme supplements claim they can soothe IBS symptoms, but their effectiveness is unproven. Wong affirms, “There’s no conclusive evidence to support digestive enzymes for people with IBS.”
Given the lack of conclusive research on digestive supplements, you might be better off managing IBS, or any digestive issues, with lifestyle changes, such as altering your diet, and ensuring adequate exercise and sleep, and checking in with your physician.
Can Digestive Enzymes Help with Heartburn?
Sadly no, unless a digestive enzyme deficiency is the cause of your heartburn. Heartburn typically occurs when stomach acids back up into your throat and esophagus. However, there are many variables that can cause heartburn, which can vary from person to person. Your chances for bad heartburn go up if food is slow to exit the stomach.
Digestive enzymes aren’t proven to help with this. But there are some steps you can take that might help:
- Chew your food thoroughly
- Eat smaller meals
- Avoid fatty and acidic foods
- Avoid eating before going to sleep
Can Digestive Enzymes Help with Weight Loss?
Nope. Weight loss happens when you eat fewer calories than you burn, and digestive enzymes don’t reduce the number of calories burned. In fact, if you are deficient in enzymes, taking a supplement will only help you digest food more efficiently.
Are There Any Side Effects for Taking Digestive Enzymes?
“Digestive enzymes are well-tolerated,” says Wong. “But if you’re one of the unlucky few, these supplements can cause side effects such as nausea, diarrhea and abdominal cramping.” Ironically, these are the same issues you may hope to resolve by taking a supplement.
There are more severe, yet rare side effects so if you’re going to take a digestive enzyme supplement, consult with your physician.
What Are the Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements?
The best digestive enzyme supplement that one that’s been blessed by your doctor. Wong explains, “Prescription-strength supplements are only available through a doctor. These are regulated by the FDA and proven to be effective. With over the counter options, you’re taking a chance. What’s on the label may not be what you’re getting.”
Another reason to talk to a doc: Enzymes are highly specific. You have to know which ones you’re deficient in to choose an effective supplement. Keep in mind that an enzyme supplement can be a blend (e.g. protease, amylase, lipase), or it can be just one kind of enzyme. If you’re lactose intolerant, for example, taking lactase enzyme will help. Taking a blend of enzymes? Not so much.
Natural Food Sources Containing Digestive Enzymes
Food-based enzymes alone won’t solve a true deficiency, but they do have their uses and are delicious. No reason you shouldn’t enjoy them in your diet! Here are five examples to whet your appetite:
Sweet and juicy pineapple contains bromelain, a class of proteases that digest protein. Fun fact: The meat tenderizer powder you can buy at the grocery store is made up of bromelain or papain (see #2 papaya).
This fleshy, tropical fruit contains papain, also a class of protease. Like bromelain, papain can digest protein and is used as a meat tenderizer. A less savory use for papain is in topical creams where it softens skin and surrounding tissue.
Mango contains alpha-amylase and beta-amylase. These digestive enzymes help the mango ripen by breaking down starches into simple (sweeter) sugars.
Kefir is milk that’s been fermented by a variety of bacteria and yeast. It contains beta-galactosidase enzymes (aka lactase), which stays active in your digestive tract even after you drink it. This enzyme is believed to help some individuals digest lactose.